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Hammer Blow

'A massive black mark on Ireland' - Calls for review of planning laws after Apple scraps Athenry plan

Planning delays have scuppered the plans.

Updated 6.27pm

LOCALS HAVE DESCRIBED the decision by Apple to scrap plans for an €850 million data centre in Athenry as “a hammer blow” to the community, while groups called for a change to planning laws in Ireland in the wake of the move.

Apple confirmed the decision today citing planning delays that have put the handbrake on construction.

Plans for the data centre were first announced in February 2015 and An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission the following year but several appeals have stopped construction of the 166,000 square metre site.

In a statement, Apple said:

Several years ago we applied to build a data centre at Athenry. Despite our best efforts, delays in the approval process have forced us to make other plans and we will not be able to move forward with the data centre. While disappointing, this setback will not dampen our enthusiasm for future projects in Ireland as our business continues to grow.

The Athenry for Apple campaign group has been advocating for the data centre to go ahead but this morning spokesperson Paul Keane voiced “huge disappointment” at the decision.

“It’s a major hammer blow to rural Ireland, to the west of Ireland,” he said.

We’ve always tried to attract jobs down here and take them out of the cities because the cities are bursting at the seams. But locally it would have been a huge advantage to have Apple in the locality.
It’s a hammer blow for small business in the area that would have benefitted from the 350 plus jobs that would have come to the area. We’ve tried our best to campaign on behalf of it but it didn’t seem to have any effect.

“Ten jobs in this area is like 1,000 jobs in Dublin because we’re in such a small rural area but to be able to create 350 construction jobs in the area and the economic activity that would have surrounded it. So it’s a massive hammer blow and it’s hard to know now Athenry will come back from it,” he added.

Keane said the reputational damage caused by the planning delays and Apple’s decision will be hard for Ireland to recover from

“It has a massive black mark on Ireland, it’s a permanent black mark on Ireland until we can show the laws are working in shortening the amount of time in dealing with objections. If objections are legitimate they must be heard but they must be heard in a process that is less time-consuming,” Keane said.

Business leaders have also been expressing their disappointment, with President of Galway Chamber Dave Hickey describing it as a “sad day for Galway and the region”.

“We have lost a significant source of investment and job creation and the opportunity to welcome a world-renowned company to Galway”, he said.

At a time when we are young, well-qualified people are leaving Galway for job opportunities on the east coast and further afield, we have missed a great opportunity to start re-dressing that trend.

In a statement today, the IDA said that definitive timelines were needed within the planning processes to eliminate the uncertainty that may have contributed to Apple’s decision to pull out of the Athenry centre.

Its CEO Martin Shanahan said: “IDA will now work with Government and other stakeholders to understand the impact of this decision and how we ensure a streamlined planning process which provides greater certainty for investors in terms of timelines to reach decisions.”

Business group Ibec said a review of the planning process is “urgently required” after Apple’s decision today.

Dr Neil Walker, head of infrastructure, energy and environment at Ibec, said that this case could worry potential large-scale investors that Ireland’s planning regime is a “bureaucratic black hole”.

“Even in situations where there is a broad range of interests in favour of investment, there are examples where the system appears to be perversely stacked against commercial development,” he said.

The situation is not helped by a continuing lack of legal clarity on environmental impact assessments, and by the ease with which vexatious claims can be brought with little or no risk. However, it is uncertainty over decision timelines – whether for planning consent or for the almost inevitable judicial review – that is arguably the biggest hindrance.

Data hosting group Host in Ireland said that the decision was not unexpected but still disappointing, with its President Garry Connolly commenting that Apple’s decision “does highlight the need for changes in our planning and energy availability mix”.

Apple has said that the decision not to build the data centre does not affect its commitment to Ireland which the company says remains strong.

“We’ve been operating in Ireland since 1980 and we’re proud of the many contributions we make to the economy and job creation.  In the last two years we’ve spent over €550 million with local companies and, all told, our investment and innovation supports more than 25,000 jobs up and down the country.  We’re deeply committed to our employees and customers in Ireland and are expanding our operations in Cork, with a new facility for our talented team there,” Apple said.

Only today, Apple was named as Ireland’s largest company with a turnover through this country of €119.2 billion.

With reporting from Sean Murray

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